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Wednesday, 11 January 2017 16:29

Books from different ends of the spectrum

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Opposites attract, so the old saying runs.

We’ve all known friends, husbands and wives, and lovers who match this adage, and the same can sometimes hold true for books. This week, for example, rupi kaur’s milk and honey and William F. Buckley Jr.’ s A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century snagged my attention. I can hardly imagine two books more different from each other.

milk and honey (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016, 196 pages, $19.99) serves up a collection of poems and drawings by Indo-Canadian poet rupi kaur. (The lower-case letters are deliberate here. kaur avoids capital letters). A self-described feminist photographer, performer, and poet, kaur first gained fame for posting an online photo of herself lying on a bed with a menstrual bloodstain on her sweat pants. She is known as the Instapoet for her posts on Instagram.

milk and honey sold enough copies to win a place on the New York Times Best Seller list. When I first began reading the book, the poems entranced me, as obviously they did many others. kaur’s short, pithy lines instantly grab the reader’s eye: “i am a museum full of art/but you had your eyes shut”; “you look like you smell of/honey and no pain/let me have a taste of that”; “you have sadness/living in places/sadness shouldn’t live,” The brevity of these poems is what gives them their power.

Yet parts of milk and honey make for painful reading, and I am not referencing the subject matter, which includes rape, incest, love lost, and love denied. kuar is 24 years old and only began writing poetry seriously in 2013, and her youth and amateurish literary skills break through in many of these verses.

Moreover, some of the poems are trite, bits of thought or philosophy that entertain on a first reading, but transform into fluff with a second look. Here’s an example: “you’ve touched me/without even/touching me.” The line might win praise for a middle-schooler or make an appearance in a song on Pandora’s Adele station, but from her it seems inane and humorous. 

The “museum” piece cited above lost its allure for me when several pages later this poem pops up: “i was music but you had your ears cut off.” I burst out laughing when I read this one, both because of its mimicking of the other poem and because I imagined some guy with both ears lopped from his poor bleeding head. This unfortunate poem also begged for parody: “i was perfume/but you had a head cold” or  “i was champagne/but you were chewing bubble gum” might do for starters. 

milk and honey doesn’t make it in my cup of tea.

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (Crown Forum, 2016, 324 pages, $22) contains more than 50 eulogies written by William F. Buckley for National Review, a conservative magazine he founded in 1955. 

Like milk and honey, A Torch Kept Lit is also touted as a New York Times Best Seller. Divided into these chapters — “Presidents,” “Family,” “Arts and Letters,” “Generals, Spies, and Statesman,” “Friends,” and “Nemeses” — this collection contains Buckley’s farewell to many well-known men and women, a good number of whom he met. 

What surprised me about A Torch Kept Lit was the variety of different public figures included in the book. Readers unfamiliar with National Review except by way of its reputation would justifiably think of Buckley as an uptight conservative, a suit wearing wingtips, yet those who remember his television show Firing Line or who have read some of his work know him as an adventurer and an enthusiast with a zest for living whose acquaintances were as diverse as his interests. 

This eclecticism is evident here. Editor James Rosen has included not only a number of eulogies written for conservatives — Whittaker Chambers, Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, and others — but also those several written for such liberal Democrats as John Kenneth Galbraith and Lyndon B. Johnson, literary and music figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Jerry Garcia, and Elvis Presley, and iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Princess Diana, Allen Dulles, and David Niven.

Readers looking for biographical sketches of the famous from the twentieth century won’t find them in A Torch Kept Lit. What they will find, however, are Buckley’s admiration and love for many of these people, his encounters with them, and his take on their influence on the United States. Nearly always his tone is one of kindness and largesse toward his subjects. In his brief essay on Elvis Presley, for instance, Buckley asks why people visit Graceland and answers his own question by saying of Presley that he was someone “truly singular and mythogenic, who contributed to his own legend his suicidal ending as a victim of the drugs he inveighed against with the strange, disquieting, appealing innocence that marked his entire life.”

Another example: of Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and other novels, Buckley writes of his old friend and his wife “I said goodbye warmly, embracing Vera, taking his hand, knowing that probably I would never see again — never mind the artist — this wonderful human being.”

An excellent collection of writings by a gracious and generous man.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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